This morning, our local public radio station had an interview segment which was such an excellent case in point that I felt the urge to write something about it. David Inge, the host of the show, is usually an excellent interviewer who brings out much of what's interesting about what the guest has to say, asking intelligent questions but seldom injecting his own opinions. This morning, though, he was interviewing the author of a book on homeopathy. This author's claim to be presenting a completely objective investigation of the subject was frustrating enough, but I was really frustrated when David was taking her loony position at face value and treating it as completely reasonable. Homeopathy is pure quackery. If their potions are actually prepared the way they say they are, there is nothing at all in them but water; if there is anything in them, they're explicitly lying about how they're prepared. Yet David went along with the author's statements about objectively presenting the claims of both sides without objection, didn't challenge it when homeopathy was lumped together with other forms of "non-traditional" medicine such as herbal remedies, and didn't even appear to bat an eye at the tinfoil-hat-wearing caller who was explaining how homeopathic remedies retained some "vibrational signature" of the substances which weren't there, and therefore it made sense that the less of the substance that was there the more potent it would be. I've been listening to David's show for years, and I know he's smart enough to actually understand concepts like diluting until there are no atoms left, rather than just hearing "blah blah science blah blah" whenever someone strings together a few words with more than two syllables.
When a journalist insists on being "objective" when faced with a "controversy" between wild-eyed lunacy on one hand and logical reality on the other, he is not doing society a service. By making a point of presenting two points of view as equally valid when one of them is clearly contrary to fact, he legitimates the bogus point of view, and raises it to equal validity in the minds of many viewers. When all opinions become equally valid, anyone with an opinion becomes an "expert", and it becomes impossible for the public to tell what's really happening if they don't have the time, prerequisite knowledge, and critical thinking skills to investigate a topic on their own. They become prey to slick orators with specific axes to grind who can always quote a superficially convincing legion of "expert"s supporting their positions.
Objectivity does have a place in journalism. When there is real evidence on both sides of an issue, a journalist should present both sides in such a way that the viewer has a real chance to understand the gist of both arguments. But when there is a clear right answer to a concrete, scientific question, it is the journalist's responsibility to make this clear, not to create and perpetuate a controversy by trying to make both sides seem equal. How a particular question should be handled is a judgment call, but we need to let our journalists know that they're allowed to have judgment.